The Next Fifty Years: Why I’m Optimistic Because Everything Will Be Terrible…

by John Shirley


The following is the complete text of the speech the author had originally planned to give at TEDx in Brussels (November 2011). The speech he gave used high points from this off-the-cuff essay, but, of necessity, only half as long. He prefers this version.


It’s a contradiction in terms—two singularities. But there are two, there’s the fanciful technological singularity of the imagination and the singularity that’s likely to come about. The false singularity, supposed to come between 2035 and 2045, is almost a “supernatural event” in the minds of many people. With its dream of technologically achieved eternal life, it has the reek of religious mythology about it, the unconscious fear of mortality; the second singularity is the real singularity—it is more modest but impressive enough…

But all technological convergences, revolutions, renaissances, taking place in the next fifty years will happen against the backdrop of social and environmental crises. Multiple simultaneous crises will create shortages, which will further concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, schisming the world, separating most of the world from the breakthroughs of “singularity” level tech and biotech—this could result in a powerful and eccentric technocrat class with its own elitist rationale for dominance of the technologically under privileged through control of media and mechanism. Generally, the moneyed class will be the technologically equipped class…and with some exceptions the disenfranchised financially will be the disenfranchised technologically, despite the cell phones we see now in many remote villages.

Let me be clear that I do not foresee the downfall of civilization, I do not expect my son to have to emulate the Mel Gibson character in Road Warrior.

But it’s going to be a long slog. Just a few weeks ago the most thorough analysis yet of the world’s energy infrastructure, from the International Energy Agency, reported that without significant reduction in greenhouses gases the next five years will take us to a point where it will be impossible to hold global warming to relatively safe levels—and the last chance of stopping the worst climate change will be “lost forever.” The door is closing, says their chief economist, in five years.

Does anyone think we’re going to get global warming under control in the next five years? With all the entrenched denialists backed by big oil and the intransigence of companies that profit from burning coal—no! Sadly it’s not going to happen. We will feel the full consequences of global warming.

When tropical diseases and pests move northward, when monsoons take place in regions unprepared for them, when radical changes in climate impacts agriculture, causing dust bowls in some areas and catastrophic flooding in others, we’ll see a gigantic surge of refugees, hundreds of millions of people, totaling billions globally, moving away from these areas, desperately migrating toward more protected areas. Oceans provide much of the world’s food—Global warming contributes to the acidification of the ocean which adds to the attrition of fish stocks. And globally, FISH supply 60% of the protein consumed by the human race—we have already harmed fish stocks by destructive methods of fishing, and pollution.

Food stocks will be radically challenged when climate change—as it’s already doing in Africa—increasingly damages agriculture. We may assume famines that make current food shortages seem like the good old days. And you do think western nations are dealing with a lot of refugees now? A drop in the bucket.

The social cost of all this will be brutally intimidating. With seven billion people on the Earth we have about a billion going to bed hungry right now and billions more people coming—And it’s been observed that the poorest people on earth contribute least to climate change but will feel its hand the heaviest, since they have the fewest resources with which to adapt and respond.

The massive shifts of large population will put unprecedented stress on infrastructure and social systems, especially food sources, water and housing, and will doubtless result in military confrontations. A Pentagon study concluded that under pressure to find new sources of food and safe housing in harsh climate change conditions, some countries will find excuses to invade other countries.

And of course there are other environmental crises arising—it’s becoming clearer that fracking to access hydrocarbons does cause earthquakes, and we’re doing more and more fracking; this and climate-change reduction in ice pressure on tectonic plates may well cause a great many more earthquakes. And don’t forget the black windstoxic fronts of synergized pollutants capable of killing large numbers of people—quite possibly being formed in the upper atmosphere, like an aerial complement to that corresponding giant whirlpool of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Then there’s the delightfully diverse soup of pharmaceuticals (along with other random industrial chemicals, in many places) we’re finding in aquifers and drinking water. We all know about drugs combining dangerously—”don’t mix those two drugs, dude, bad news!”—but we’re combining hundreds of them randomly in our water. Sure they’re somewhat diluted, but one wonders if some general, cumulative compound will develop, some drug mix of birth control pill hormones, steroids, Prozac (one of the most common pollutants in water), antihistamines and antibiotics. What interesting collective neurological side effects might it have? The Romans had their leaded eating plates…

Still, the biggest threat is to food and shelter. And those who have access to resources, feeling threatened, will naturally coalesce defensively against those migrating to seek better conditions. Moneyed, technologically sophisticated elements of society will tend to withdraw from the increasing pressures of the masses of disenfranchised, into the safety of walled, highly protected enclaves, which will be in effect, if not in legal status, technocratic city states.


A percentage of privileged technocrats may well sink into the repellently self indulgent decadence of virtual reality retreats, where they’ll be sequestered both physically and mentally. Addiction to social media, videogames, cellphones and the internet is now a recognized phenomena and that has implications for our relationship to future tech. Because its addictive capacity will only increase as its experiential quality improves.

It’s strange—most of our technology is about extending our reach…but paradoxically, we’re in danger of a relationship to technology that actually cuts us off from one another. Cartoonists already caricature families who sit together talking to everyone but each other on their plethora of devices.


There’s intelligent collaboration with technology…and then there’s a risk of mindless dependence on it. A biomedical engineer has already designed an Ecog chip that does not disrupt brain tissue, it floats atop the blood brain barrier, sensing the output of neurons and transmitting them to prosthetic devices, to machinery we wish to control, and so on—and some researchers expect the ecog chip to make electronic telepathy possible.

Nanoengineers at Princeton have developed a superthin electronic skin, that puckers and stretches like real skin, it can be adhered invisibly to your forehead; it could be hidden in the throat and used for subvocal communication. It can communicate with the internet, it can transmit data from your body—many of you will now be thinking of other examples of human /machine interfacing coming along and this adds to the frisson, the anticipation of a technological “singularity” that supposedly will lead to a kind of ubermensch cyborgian elite. The fear of death that has generated most of our religious myths has also generated the myth that we can create a second machine body into which we’ll supposedly project a copy of ourselves and…puzzlingly…this recording in a three dimensional form is regarded as immortality. But the human essence is a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts, consciousness still remains mysterious to us, and selfhood is not a series of likes and dislikes recorded into a program.

The real singularity will be simply an unprecedented cybernetic intelligence explosion to many orders of magnitude, and that I do believe WILL happen, is beginning now, accompanied by a vast increase in interactivity—but the Kurzweilian singularity that allows us to interface with machines until, in his words, “there will be no distinction between human and machine”, will not come about sustainably because the psychological and social consequences would be so dire.

People who are quadriplegic have stated that they feel less emotion than they did when they could still feel their entire bodies. The projection of the self into electronics reduces our relationship to the body, the seat of our emotions, and for several reasons that might lead to an increase in psychopathology.

And empathy may be a precious commodity in the future. Most people unconsciously cut off their empathy when they’re feeling endangered–when the population increases to eight and nine and ten billion, we may instinctively become, as a race, proportionately less empathetic—unless we actively struggle against that kind of degeneracy.

The super rich may become especially elitist and detached when they get exclusive access to rejuvenation. It’s fairly evident that some form of rejuvenation, and certainly extensive life extension, will soon be possible. It’s thought that the first person to live three hundred years has recently, somewhere, been born. With a probable ability to grow new replacement organs to suit an individual’s DNA in a lab, with Sandia labs’ specialized nanoparticles that blast problematic micro organisms and cancers with precise micro applications of drugs; with methods for teasing stem cells into regeneration, and regenerative drugs like sirolimus, and other innovations …we will effectively have rejuvenation—for those who can afford it.

Let’s be honest. Rejuvenation is sure to be a tremendously expensive process and it’s possible that the ONLY the super rich will regenerate—some of you younger people, now in your twenties, may in seventy- five years be tottering around, quite ancient…and see a youthful Paris Hilton still walking around. Or you may see Dominique Strauss-Kahn, looking younger than he looks right now! Do we want Dominique Strauss Kahn chasing hotel maids in the year 2095? He’ll catch a lot more of them! There are some very good wealthy people in the world, who are showing that they care—I know that—but there is a tendency for many of the super wealthy to be fairly awful, spoiled personalities. We see, hear, and read about them constantl—examples are unavoidable. But we can avoid that fate by making laws that state that rejuvenation for the most part goes to people who deserve it—you’ll get points for art, for science, for good works, add them up and THEN get rejuvenated.

Every technology and every wrinkle of a technology has a dark side. Automated aircraft are supposed to be safer—but the airline industry lately has suffered from what an FAA committee called “automation addiction.” And we’re seeing “a new breed of accident with state of the art planes”. Pilots use automated systems for all a few minutes of the flight–takeoff and landing. They simply program navigation into computers rather than using their hands to fly the plane but when something goes wrong they haven’t got the skills to deal with it anymore.

Mastery of technology must include acknowledgement of its dark side. Mastery of technology means accepting of limitations. Limitations have value, e.g. limiting the amount of electricity sent through a power line to what that line can safely carry means electrical flow isn’t lost.

A machine which pollutes is only partly invented. And a lot of the time we rush into technology so quickly we don’t realize it’s going to pollute. It was recently discovered, for example, that every time a garment made from polyester and acrylic fibers is washed, it releases thousands of microplastic fibers that end up fouling coastal environments throughout the globe. No one expected that. No one thought that form of manufacture through.

Not all biotech innovation will lead to delightful results. People been enthusiastically breeding dogs in every variety for some time. It’s thought that genetic engineering will enable us to create a species of dogs that can talk. Is that a good thing? I love dogs but you may not want your dog to be saying, “Feed me now, I’m hungry what’s in your pocket what’s that smell on your shoes can we go outside and defecate and by the way I hate the cat” when you get home from a long day’s work.

In a lab in Glasgow, UK, one man is intent on proving that metal-based life is possible. He has managed to build cell-like bubbles from metal molecules and has given them life-like properties. He thinks he will be able to get them to evolve into fully inorganic self-replicating entities.

“I am 100 per cent positive that we can get evolution to work outside organic biology,” claims this researcher. If he’s right we could breed the next form of technology.

And it’s a little worrisome when you consider that researchers in Seoul, Korea and in Bristol, England have developed plans for something they’re calling an “ecobot”çusing the venus flytrap as a model. The ecobot is a robot that eats. It will be able to ingest flesh and turn it into fuel. Combine the ecobot with the evolving inorganic self-replicating entities planned by the scientist at the University of Glasgow… and feel a long slow chill at the thought.

It’s time for a philosophy of technology—one that acknowledges its dark side and thinks proactively about the consequences of new technology so that technology can be tweaked and negative consequences prepared for…Technology needs to evolve a conscience.

The real singularity will offer us some great advances—including a redefinition of what money is, and how it will flow, propelled by a computerized awareness of nearly every significant financial transaction. Paper money will be obsolete and thus money will be thoroughly trackable. As things stand now, money is treated like meteorology. Its mysterious ebbs and flows are predicted rather like the way weather is; people forecast recessions and bubbles. The new computing power will make it possible to track almost every movement of monetary units in the world and will bring a complete rethinking of not only economic probability but also the usage of money. Money is purely conceptual but we act as if it’s got a life of its own. We forget that it is the creation of humanity and it can be made to serve humanity as a whole. When that system is enabled there will never have to be another recession. The connectivity that put the Eurozone at risk from the Greek economic meltdown can also protect it IF we incorporate complexity theory and computer modeling, so we’re told be Len Fisher a physicist at the University of Bristol. “Cascades of failure may be controlled by changing the nature and strength of the links between various parts of the networks,” says Fisher. I envision a computer that would have access to a pool of funds that it would use to prevent crises.

But yes—there will be catastrophe between here and there. I believe that catastrophe will spur social transformation. We’ll have astounding technological advancement against a backdrop of grievous social inequity and quite possibly increasing barbarity, for a period, until we are forced by waves of crises to come to terms with the consequences of developing a civilization blindly. Wars, plagues, radical separation of privileges, famines due to climate change and other environmental consequences, will force humanity to accept Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship Earth” concept as very real.

In short, we will be forced by the dire situation we find ourselves in to stop whining about world government. Only world government–one committed to human rights (including the rights of women, which are integral to population control) and environmental justice—can deal with these kinds of international crises. World government will not mean anyone gives up their culture, except the bits that reject human rights; it will not be a great gray conformity; there will still be at least as much national sovereignty, for most issues, as states in Europe have in the EU–and remember that the EU, a fuzzy foreshadowing of world government, is in a very early stage, it’s having problems, and that was inevitable–it’s still evolving! But it does have the right idea. Toward the end of the 21st century the world will move toward a framework of consensus on some basic rules regarding population growth, the environment, and access to technology. Empowering third world people with education and technology will give them a step toward the resources and coping ability they’ll need to survive.

I believe we’ll achieve a collective progressive consciousness as a result of the revelatory shocks we’ll endure in the next fifty years. We’ll learn we can’t treat Spaceship Earth as a party cruise ship.

John Shirley was interviewed for the first issue of MONDO 2000 and immediately became a friend and contributor. 

He’s written novels, short stories, TV scripts, screenplays, lyrics, poetry, songs, and various forms of nonfiction. More than forty of his novels have been published. Many of his 200 or so short stories have been compiled in eight short-story collections. He has also written one historical novel—a western about Wyatt Earp, Wyatt in Wichita, and one non-fiction book, Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas. As a musician, Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and others.


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